Is it time to redefine vacation leave?

In this January 2020 photo, students of Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain head home at the end of the first day of school following the Christmas vacation. The time may have come for TT to rethink the definition of vacation leave, including whether schools should be open all year with shorter more frequent breaks. - Photo by Sureash Cholai
In this January 2020 photo, students of Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain head home at the end of the first day of school following the Christmas vacation. The time may have come for TT to rethink the definition of vacation leave, including whether schools should be open all year with shorter more frequent breaks. - Photo by Sureash Cholai

As we are into our second year of lockdowns and Zoom meetings and scheduled or rotating working-from-home periods, confusion is arising over calculating annual vacation leave.

There is a common perception that, since so many public servants seldom if ever turn up for work even on scheduled days, should be there be any unscheduled absence – not only for them, but for anyone scheduled to work – that should be deducted from their vacation leave entitlements.

For those now on what is now being called “furlough” and those permanently severed because there is no work for them, claims arise about foregone leave apparently accumulated in the months before they were laid off or retrenched, even though as “non-essential” workers government directed them to stay home.

It is a far more complex issue than it first appears.

Back in the day, an award was made in the Industrial Court (No 16 of 1981) in a dispute between BWIA (as it then was) and the T&T Pilots Association which dealt with pre-retirement leave. The pilots found they were unable to take the leave they had accumulated in any one year, so wanted to take it as a lump sum when they retired. The company wanted it to be taken as “pre-retirement leave” in the way public servants got it.

The terms have increased since then, as the PSA has argued that overworked public servants need the rest. Do the maths. Pilots, although flights have been cancelled and there is a surplus of pilots on the market, had their retrenchment cushioned by the right to leave they had accumulated. Junior pilots got 28 working days a year, senior pilots, 44. Since as with any airline, there was a need to maintain flight schedules, pilots in those days tended to accumulate a fair amount of leave over the years, as do public servants still, albeit for different reasons.

In the case quoted, four pilots had accumulated 38 days, 257 days, 285 days and 511 days' vacation leave respectively. Not surprising when public servants have not infrequently accumulated as much as three years' leave at full pay, still accumulating leave benefits on pre-retirement leave.

In the private sector very few people other than the most senior executives in large corporations get more than 40 working days per year. Most people get two weeks, escalating to four with accumulated service. In family-owned organisations, at senior levels a month’s leave is more common, except for the owner/CEO and most entrepreneurs, who often take no leave whatsoever.

The question recently being asked, as the realisation hits that no vaccinations will come to little TT to immunise 70 per cent of us before 2023 or 2024 and things will have changed permanently by then, is: what happens now? What are the parameters of realistic movements for those companies with collective bargaining coming up and union demands for increases in salaries and wages, as well as demands for increased benefits such as vacation?

Back in 1982, when the BWIA award came out, it was noted that if an organisation could do without someone for 285 days or even five or six months a year, it could probably do without them forever.

At that time, it was predicted that within a few generations, 80 per cent of work done by human beings would be taken over by technology. That replacement prediction has not happened, as it turned out. Only 30-40 per cent of jobs other than personal service jobs were replaced by technology.

Within the last 20 years, many banking staff have been replaced, theoretically, by online services; postal services have been cut in half. Those jobs absorbed into others using new technology include switchboard, mimeograph, elevator, dictaphone and telegraph operators, loaders and longshoremen, typesetters...I am sure you can think of many others.

One thing that has never stopped is the need for personal service: people helping those who are physically unable to help themselves, With the exposé of inadequacies in “care” homes for the elderly, there is a need for a new minimum wages order for workers, as these are, in fact essential, with varying hours of work not applicable to most other jobs.

But no one seems to be asking what the purpose of vacation leave is.

Is it because people need a break from stressful work? That makes sense. But does everyone need the same amount of leave?

Do young people without families to support need the same amount of leave as those with children? Do new employees need vacation similar to those who have worked for 30 years?

What do people use their leave for? Should that be taken into account, like judicial leave to visit courts in other countries?

Do schools have to close for three months starting in May? Originally, they had to, because children helped with planting, weeding and harvesting, as all families grew at least some of their own food.

Would a two-week break every three months work better instead, with schools open all year round?

Do people who did not use their vacation leave but had to stay home anyway during the pandemic still need annual vacation leave?

As we change toward leave granted on account of mental illness, do we as a country have to also rethink the definition of vacation leave?

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"Is it time to redefine vacation leave?"

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